Originally Published: April 2, 2022
Is assistance available in Omaha to slow utility shut-offs?
OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — It’s the time of year when spring feels like it’s coming and going. But it is getting warmer.
That means it’s also the time of year when Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) and Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD) can begin to turn off utilities more often, no longer hindered by their own policies of choosing not to turn off utilities when cold weather lies ahead.
MUD won’t turn off service between Dec. 1 and March 31 and when the temperature for the next night is expected to reach below freezing. OPPD said it wouldn’t force a shut-off when the temperature is expected to reach below freezing in the next 24 to 48 hours.
Mike Hornacek, CEO of Together Omaha, said that means they’ll see more requests for utility assistance. They’re larger than usual requests, he said, because the amount due can pile up over the winter.
Matt Wallen, Vice President of Community Impact and Analytics at United Way of the Midlands. He says the 211 Hotline has seen an uptick in outreach since Febuary.
“We’re looking at about 1,700 calls a month on average for folks looking for utility assistance,” he said.
MUD says that, despite increased levels of need in the community, its level of utility disconnects remains below that of pre-pandemic levels, because assistance is available. OPPD said its disconnect rates are similar to pre-pandemic levels, also saying that’s despite the fact that the level of need in the community has been higher.
Though both say the assistance is available, that’s a situation that could change. Both utilities say they remain on their toes, remaining flexible for customers, and only shutting off utilities as a last resort.
Wallen described a “cliff effect” to funding. Some funds must be spent by Sept. 30, or they’d need to be returned.
“Then we really have to look at private philanthropy, and then the programs that are offered by the utility companies themselves,” Wallen said.
United Way of the Midlands doubled its staffing to handle calls to 211 and texts to 898211, the text message equivalent of the 211 hotline. The number of calls more than doubled in 2021 compared to 2019. They expect 2022 to surpass 2021.
“The more money that is out there to help with utility assistance, the better off all of our customers are going to be,” said Megan Walter of MUD, “no matter where that money comes from.”
Both MUD and OPPD encourage customers to reach out to discuss their bill. Each has their own utility assistance funds, which raise money through fundraisers like Heat The Streets and donations that can be tacked onto bills.